Royal National Park lies at the northern end of the Illawarra region, which used to contain extensive rainforests. Only small pockets survive today, mainly in the national parks of the region. In the Royal, you can find areas of subtropical, warm temperate and littoral (coastal) rainforest.
The park's subtropical and warm temperate rainforests are mainly restricted to sheltered places in the Hacking River valley - you'll find them on the Forest Path and along Lady Carrington Drive. Coastal rainforest is found on sand dunes at Jibbon, Marley, Curracurrang and Garie. In the coastal rainforests of the park's south-eastern section, you'll see plenty of cabbage tree palms - try the Palm Jungle Loop Track for a real taste of these striking trees.
Wet eucalypt forests
The park protects a wide range of eucalypt forests.These include:
Tall moist eucalypt forest After a long history of logging in the Illawarra area, tall moist eucalypt forests are now regenerating in conservation reserves such as Royal National Park. You'll find them in the southern section of the park, along the Hacking River valley.
The Royal's shale forests are remnants of a forest community which once stretched from Sutherland to Cronulla. They contain eucalypts that are markedly different to those found in the park's gullies. You can see them on outcrops along the western edge of the park, particularly near Loftus.
Sandstone gully forest On the park's sheltered sandstone slopes and gullies, you'll find forests dominated by Sydney red gum (a species of angophora), together with a few eucalypt species. These forests offer spectacular bushwalking terrain - try the Karloo Track to see for yourself.
Along the sandstone plateau - just south of Audley, in particular - the Royal contains areas of eucalypt woodland with a diverse shrubby understorey. Among the understorey plants, you can see Gymea lilies, waratahs and woody pears, all of which are generally uncommon on sandstone ridges in the region. You can go looking for them on the Uloola Track.
If you're on the eastern side of Royal National Park, on the clifftops along the exposed sandstone plateau, you're bound to come across many types of heath vegetation. The park's heath and scrub is a complex interaction between different plant communities in different environmental conditions.
The most extensive vegetation type is open scrub, dominated by shrubs like banksias, tea-trees and hakeas. Mallee heath, with its multi-stemmed eucalypts and small shrubs, is also common. Low coastal scrub, which can survive a constant battering of high winds and salt spray, grows along the sea cliffs and headlands. You can see these vegetation communities along the Coast Track or the Curra Moors Loop Track. The Royal's heathlands contain over 500 species of flowering plants. From July to November, many of these wildflowers are in full bloom, and you can walk amidst a riot of colour.
There are freshwater lagoons in the park at Jibbon and Marley.
You'll also find upland swamps in poorly drained headwater valleys on the sandstone plateau. Uloola Swamp, on the Uloola Track, is a good example.
You'll find estuarine wetlands, which consist of mudflats with mangroves or saltmarsh, along the intertidal zone of the Hacking River.
This area has been protected since the park's creation in 1879, when regulations were passed to prevent dredging and the removal of sand, rocks and plants. Soon after, park authorities banned the use of explosives, net-fishing, and commercial harvesting of oysters.
This makes Royal National Park the oldest protected marine area in the world!